Immigration…and Emigration


For my entire life, I have thought about the idea of immigration. I was raised on the stories told by my grandparents and great aunts and uncles. Stories about coming to America. Coming to the land of education, opportunity, promise.

I have always, for all of my 62 years, viewed my heritage through the lens of immigration to the United States. Growing up in a middle class suburb of Boston, I was aware that my grandparents had raised my parents in far grittier, far poorer, far more crowded areas of my home state.

I knew that my grandparents had left Italy in the earliest years of the twentieth century. I knew that they came here because they wanted to find work. They wanted a steady income. I knew that they came because they wanted their children, my parents, to have an education and a chance to escape the endless pressure of poverty that had marked their own lives.

As a child who came of age in the 1960’s, I was raised on the idea of the American “melting pot.” I grew up with the image of Lady Liberty holding her torch aloft. I imagined my grateful grandparents arriving in this country.

I never thought about those same grandparents leaving everything they had ever known and loved.

It wasn’t until my just finished trip to Italy that I stopped to think about the leaving part of immigration.

Last week I traveled with my husband, our two sons and their future wives to the small village where my paternal grandparents were born. I had always heard about the little town in the “hills above Naples.” I had always heard about the difficult agrarian life, about the lack of opportunity.

I wanted to see that little village because it was the place of my roots. I wanted to see it because my father always talked about it, and because I have missed my Dad every single day for the past ten years.  I had a romantic image of what it would be like to walk on the streets where my ancestors had walked.

But when I got to the little town, winding up its narrow streets, my husband and I were with our sons and the women they plan to marry. I didn’t expect the rush of emotion that struck me when I came into the tiny town center. Getting out of the car in the blistering heat of Italy in July, I felt as if I was carrying the weight of my father and his parents on my aching back. I walked to the small stone monument dedicated to those who had died in the World Wars, and there I read the names of ancestors I would never know.

I was sobbing when the church bells rang at noon, holding onto my youngest child, but thinking of the thread that tied him to my great grandparents. Did my grandmother and father hear those same bells every day? Was this the church where they were brought to be Christened as babies?

The day went on, filled with more blessings than I can name. I met loving, gracious, kind relatives that I had never know before.  I stood on the terrace outside of the little local church, with the most gorgeous valley spread out below us. I heard my sons and their loves talking about marriage. I hugged my husband of 40 years, knowing that he understood how precious this moment was for me. After all this time, to be standing in this place…..

“It’s so beautiful,” I kept saying to myself with real surprise. “It’s so peaceful and so rugged and so beautiful.”

Later in our trip, Paul and I went to Sicily. The kids had gone home, but we had more time and we wanted to see the home place of my maternal grandparents. These were the grandparents I knew best, and I felt my Grampa with me every step of that trip. We got to Augusta, where my Grampa had grown up and where my Nana’s parents had lived.

I smelled the sea and the orange blossoms and the dry wind, and I was struck right in the heart with how beautiful it all was. While I was in Sicily, I ate seafood, I swam in the Mediterranean, tasted the wine, saw the olive trees.

And one thought kept going through my mind, “How did they ever leave this place?”

We had hugged our kids goodbye as they headed back to Massachusetts, to jobs and friends and lives. I was truly sad to see them go, and there were a couple of tears when they left.

But now that I had begun to think of immigration as “emigration”, all I could think about was the leaving that my family was brave enough to endure.

How did they do it? What desperation, what fear, what sorrow could have pushed my young grandparents to leave behind their language, their food, their music, their parents, in search of something better?

What desperation, what depth of love, what deeply held hope could have given my great grandparents the courage to hug their children goodbye as they boarded the ships that would take them across the world forever?

I thought about the beauty of the sunsets in Sicily. I thought about the light on the mountains of Avellino. I thought about how hard it was for me to give up the sound of English for three short weeks.

And I thought about kissing my children goodbye, knowing that I might never see them again.

I’ll never think about immigration in the same way again. Those who leave behind all that is known and secure must be powered by a hope that I can only imagine.

 

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What I Think of Italy


Wow.

I have waited 62 years to finally set my feet on the soil of my ancestral home. Finally. I have breathed the air of Rome, walked the streets of Naples, toured the history of Pompeii. I have bathed in the waters off of Sicily, eaten octopus and giant shrimp grilled in small local cafes. I’ve had the wine, ridden the trains, busses, subways and boats.

I think I’ve finally gotten a sense of where my family was born.

And it was nothing like I expected, while it was just what I had hoped.

I don’t know how to describe it, but I’m going to try. Because, you know, blogger, writer….that’s what we do.

Italy has a lot of delicious fruits. One of them is a funny looking, yellow melon. It’s kind of bumpy, lumpy and odd looking from the outside. I have no idea what we’d call it in English.

But when you cut into it?

The fruit is sweet, soft, delicate and full of flavor.

That’s how I think of Italy.

From the outside, there is a lot to feel creeped out about. There is a definite problem with trash and litter. Even the most scenic roads are lined with smashed beer bottles and unwanted wrappers. While there are trash containers in every city and town, it doesn’t seem as if they are ever emptied.

The buildings are uniformly old.  Some are truly ancient, and many are simply left to crumble into the landscape. Others were probably built during the second world war, and have stucco facades that are peeling and broken. Some are newer, but even those often have a look of neglect.

The ground is dry and the plants are brittle. Weeds encroach often on small vias and byways.

But.

If you are lucky enough to be invited into one of the dry stucco homes, you will be amazed and overwhelmed by the beauty. Everyone seems to have floors of marble. Walls are painted in bold and beautiful colors. There is art on those walls. There are little touches of charm and beauty.

We have stayed in some very spartan places on our trip. In some cases the faucets were a little loose and shower doors didn’t close all the way.

But every single one of them had lovely decorative touches. Vases, glasses, tablecloths in vibrant colors, pots of flowers on the balconies.

And inside of every house, it seemed to us, there were people who were the very embodiment of kindness and warmth. Even though we speak little to no Italian, people tried to communicate with us. They used words, gestures, facial expressions, more words. The seemed to believe that if they just tried hard enough, everyone would understand each other.

What a wonderful concept!

People we didn’t know helped us to pump gas, to check out in the grocery store, to buy items we needed. People were patient when we repeatedly explained that we couldn’t understand. They laughed with us, not at us, when we made mistakes in Italian. They applauded and complimented us on our meager attempts to master their language.

Italy is like that funny yellow melon. On the outside, you aren’t really sure you want it. But once you cut into it, and taste the sweetness inside, you know that you’ll be craving it forever.

canary-melon-3

Molto delicioso.

The Missing Purse


Manarola

La Cinque Terre

If you had a chance to read “Nonni On a Train,” you’ll know that I found myself in the beautiful town of Riomaggiore without my purse, license, credit or debit cards and minus about 150 Euro.

If you’ve ever met me, you’ll know without my even saying it that I had a full on panic attack standing in the train station.

Many swears were spoken in more than on language on that platform. I think I even made a few of them up.

But while I was having my heart attack, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by calmer heads. My husband the saint never once asked how I could have been stupid enough to forget my purse. My sons assured me that everything could be replaced and that money is only money. My future daughters-in-law came up with several good ideas of how to proceed. All would be well, they all assured me.

My first thought was to find a police officer. So I ran into a little restaurant and asked in my broken Italian, “Where can I find the police?”

The two women who worked there looked at me with pure horror. “Polizie?” one asked. The other put her hand to her mouth. I realized that they were both thinking, “Holy shit, someone got stabbed/raped/beaten and it was right outside our door!”

As quickly as I could, I reassured them. With a mixture of hand gestures (pays to be Italian by birth), broken Italian and simplified English, I explain that I had left my purse “con documenti i carti” on the train. I was a wreck, shaking, sweating in the 90 degree humid air, my heart pounding. The older woman said, “Ah, capito! I help.” and grabbed the phone. She motioned to her friend, a younger waitress and told her to get me some water. They sat me down, poured me a cold glass of water (the best water I have EVER tasted) and got in touch with the police in the town of La Spezia, where the train was headed and where my family and I were staying.

I don’t speak much Italian, especially when I am in the middle of a complete emotional breakdown, but I understood that the local cops told my rescuer to call the train security people. She did just that, talking to them for more than 20 minutes. The younger woman kept an eye on me, saying, “Oh, my God” and “What a mess” or something like that. Every now and then she’d pat my shoulder, squeeze my hand, or pour me more cold water.

Meanwhile, my husband was trying to check on which documents he was carrying and which were with me. My sons had gotten the number on the front of the train and were thinking of ways to quickly get back to La Spezia. The girls were talking to locals and asking for advice while all of them waited for me to reappear.

Finally the woman in the restaurant asked me for my phone number and name, which she passed on the person in train security. She told me “Tomorrow….morning….go to…(pointed to a word on a paper)….” In Italian she said, “Maybe they will have your things.”

I was so overwhelmed! In one of the busiest tourist towns in Italy, right at the dinner hour, she had stopped everything to help a complete stranger who she’d never see again. I was teary eyed as I hugged her and her compassionate friend. “Grazie, grazie mille, grazie!” I made my way out the door to find my family, wiping tears away.

We took the train back to La Spezia, with the kids joyful energy keeping my spirits up. When we got there, we found two train security people. One was a tall (handsome) guy and the other his short, pretty female partner. We told them our story, and they said that they had already heard about it (yay for my heroic woman friend!) They asked if I wanted to “make a report.” I had no idea what that meant, so I asked if they’d do it in my situation.

In true Italian fashion, they shrugged. I got the impression that they figured it was a lost cause. So did I.

When we were about to leave, I pulled out the last of my remaining humor and asked, “Per favore, dovi il vino?” (“Please, where is the wine?”) They laughed, and we said goodnight.

So.

For an hour, Paul was on the phone trying to cancel my credit cards. He managed to do that, but he also inadvertently cancelled his. That meant that we were down to half of our cash and one debit card.

Merda, as we say in Italy. Merda, merda, merda.

The next morning we planned to take a ferry to the “Gulf of Poets” to enjoy the gorgeous scenery and swim in the Mediterranean. We decided that it was pointless to go the to train security to look for my purse. Who would find a purse full of cash and cards and bother to return it? Even it had been returned, wouldn’t the local police take the cash? I mean, come on, we’ve all heard about the corrupt Italian police. And the cards were no good anymore anyway.

We did our day trip. We came back to La Spezia and had dinner. We went to bed.

The next morning we were heading to Rome. We all decided that we had just enough time to hop back on the train for one last visit to the Cinque Terre.

We boarded the train, and just before it left, the doors opened. In walked two police officers. I saw them come in, and saw the taller one glance at my kids and then lock his eyes on me. He pointed. He strode toward me.

My heartbeat went to about 524. I think I squeaked.

I was sure I was headed for Italian jail.

“Tu! Tu sei la signora!” (You! You are the woman!)

I squeaked again, then my girl Jessica said, “It’s about your purse!”

“Si!” the tall cop said, and I suddenly recognized him from the other night. The good looking one (Jeez. I am getting old). “You come with me! Now! We have your things!” He grabbed my hand and Paul and I ran off the train with him and his partner.

It turns out that he was watching the security cameras, and he recognized me! Holy amazing.

He took us to the office of the train security officer, a big, jovial guy named Luca who even had the kindness to flirt with me as we were introduced.

I was truly dumbfounded by the whole thing. I hugged the two officers who had taken me off the train with about 50 heartfelt grazies. As I turned to follow Luca, the man asked, “Signora, il vino era buono?” (Was the wine good?)

So.

It turns out that in this scary, supposedly corrupt country, a woman can drop her purse in a tiny train bathroom, have it ignored by countless other riders, and then it can be picked up the train security. Those security people can ignore the 150 Euros in it and bring it to the head guy, who will not only leave every cent inside of it, but spend hours trying to find its owner on the internet and by phone (mine had died when he’d called.) A guy just doing his regular job can see a familiar face on his camera, rush onto the train, and save the whole situation.

I started the day calling myself “La Signora stupida,” but ended it by calling myself “La Signora fortunata.”

 

Nonni On a Train


FlowersWhile I have lots of moving and touching stories to share with you, I feel most compelled this morning to share my misadventure on a train the other day.

Why?

Because in retrospect, it’s freakin’ hilarious.

On July 4th we woke up in our beautiful, comfortable guesthouse in the little city of LaSpezia, just outside of Italy’s famous Cinque Terre. Side note; if you ever come to the Cinque Terre part of Italy and want to save a bundle on a room, book yourself into La Branda. The kindest hosts on earth and very comfortable, pretty rooms. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

Anyway, our two sons and their girlfriends were with us, and we all headed into the  Cinque Terre. It was as magical as everyone says! While we were riding the train, we were going through gritty little towns, then a tunnel, then a town. Suddenly, we came out of a tunnel and onto a wide open view of the Mediterranean. The whole train burst into applause and cheers and all the locals smiled. Magic.

We started our day at the farthest village, called Monterosso al Mare. We had read that it was the best place to swim, and we were more than ready to do that.

At first we just took in the sights. We strolled, we people watched, we went into shops, we took pictures. It was hard to decide where to look next! In the early afternoon we found the local beach, and threw ourselves into the clear blue waters of the sea.

Beach

It was Heaven, I tell ya, pure Heaven! We floated for so long our fingers turned into prunes. We found beautifully colored stones and sea glass, as smooth as polished marble. We had ice cold beers on the shore, then went in to swim some more.

When it was finally time to head out of the water and back into town, I wasn’t sure of where to change. My bathing suit was soaked, and I didn’t want to put my clothes on over it. But this chubby middle aged American was not about to follow local custom and change on the beach.

Bathrooms in the Cinque Terre, it turns out, are as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth.

So I put on a gauzy, flowy shirt that covered me to about mid-thigh. I was a little bit faked out to be walking through town with so much of me on show, although the ladies all around me were unfazed to be eating dinner in bikinis. Even the chubby, gray haired ones who it seemed should know better.

I tried to just go with the flow, pulling on the hem of my colorful shirt every third step. I could just picture my flabby old thighs, complete with various scratches and bruises. I wanted to apologize to everyone walking uphill behind me.

After a while, we took the train down to the village of Manarola and walked all through the streets.(Yep. I was still in my bathing suit and flowy thing.)

It was really beautiful! We ate dinner and drank Prosecco.  I had the most delicious octopus and fresh lemon cured anchovies.

Also approximately 14 pounds of fresh Italian bread.

anchovy

 

At this point in our adventure, Nonni here had consumed several gallons of liquid, including beer and wine. It was time for some relief. But remember the part about the rare bathrooms? No matter how I searched, I wasn’t able to find a place were I could a) put on some decent clothing and b) prevent the embarrassment of peeing myself in public.

So I clenched my….teeth….and kept walking.

At last, we decided to get back on the train and head down to the last town, Riomaggiore.

“Aha!” I thought to myself, “The train has a bathroom!”

As soon as we got on, I ran to the bathroom. OK, I probably didn’t actually “run”, since my knees were locked together. But I sure as hell scuttled as fast as I could go. I had a bag with my clothes in my hand, planning to pee fast and get changed at the same time.

All would probably have been well, except for two small problems. We were only going one stop on this very fast train, and it was going to take a while to let go of all that liquid buildup. Nevertheless, off came the suit, I wrangled me into my bra and took care of business. Sighing with painful relief, I got into my undies and had one foot in my shorts when the train very suddenly lurched to a halt.

“Bam!”

Back went Nonni, crashing into the toilet. Luckily, the bathroom was only about the size of a shoebox, so there wasn’t far to fall. I ignored my injured backside and yanked on my shorts, grabbing my sandals in one hand and the bag with my bathing suit in the other. As I opened the door, I saw my family getting off the train so I rushed to the door.

For some reason that is probably known only to the Italians, the train stopped partway down the tunnel. We had to walk in the semi-dark between the train and the brick wall. I was still barefoot, and pictured myself stepping on a rat or something. So as I made my way down the narrow tunnel, I was hopping on one foot and pulling a sandal on the other.

I was laughing though, in spite of my aching cheek. We were all laughing and talking about our fabulous day.

Right up until I suddenly realized that I had left my purse on the now departing train.

Holy panic attack.

I’ll tell you what happened in my next post.

Time For Some Sweeping Generalizations


Munchen

Isn’t it funny when your broad generalizations and assumptions are proven to be true?

And isn’t it funny when they aren’t?

Having spent three packed days touring the beautiful city of Munich, I have some broad and sweeping generalizations to share. Feel free to shake your heads or just laugh at me. Feel free to agree!

  1. Germany is just as organized, clean, orderly and proper as I always thought it would be. Of course, we were here a couple of years ago and saw Berlin and part of the North, so we already had an idea, but holy standardization! The gardens are all neat. I am not kidding. Every little Bavarian house has window boxes filled with pink and red geraniums. Every lawn is trimmed.  There wasn’t one fallen tree or broken branch anywhere.  Even the dogs are orderly and polite. People bring them to restaurants and cafes, they go into stores. They walk sedately on leashes and sit down when their owners think the word “sit.”
  2. Schnitzel is as good as it sounds. Really. Seriously. Ever since the “Sound of Music” first came out, I have yearned for “schnitzel with noodles.” It is crisp, crunchy, tender and yummo. Last night we had it at an Austrian gasthouse. The serving we were given will last us for days.
  3. People are people. Some of them are old and some of them aren’t. They come in all colors, sizes and shapes. I have seen the most gorgeously dressed women, with gleaming brown skin and dark, deep eyes, dressed in swathes of pure white gauze, smelling like a garden of jasmine. I have seen tiny white-blond toddlers in pink shorts chattering away as they skipped along beside their mothers. People have exchanged smiles, and people have looked away when I sent them a smile. In general, I find native Germans and Austrians to be helpful, polite, friendly but not intrusive. I like them!
  4. I love German showers. I know, it sounds stupid. But they are so…..clean! We aren’t staying in pricey places, believe me. But the bathrooms are all equipped with these fabulous glass sided showers. No tile anywhere. Some kind of floor that looks like wood or wide slate and the glass sides and door (when there is one) are firmly attached to that floor. A small drain is along one side. The shower heads are big “rain” style things and I now yearn for one in my little home bathroom.
  5. As I feared, people here are in complete horror about the President of the U.S. They understand that he is interested only in the well-being of his own country, and doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what happens to the rest of the world. They’re afraid that his lack of understanding (also referred to as “his stupidness”) will mean that he doesn’t get the fact that we are all interdependent and that if they fall, so will we. They no longer trust the U.S.  To quote one very intelligent and highly informed friend, “But how could so many Americans vote for this terrible person? We hear his words about women, about immigrants. How could even one person vote for this person?” Good question.
  6. Home is where the heart is. I miss my dog. I miss my grandchildren like a lost limb. I miss the smell of my own woods. But the world is a beautiful place, and the people who live here are fascinating creatures. Tomorrow I will be able to move on to all those cliched perceptions of Italians when we take the train to Milan!

Auf Weidersehn!

 

One Last Thought Before I Go


I can’t stand Donald Trump. He is a liar. I hate liars. He is willing to turn us all against each other to achieve his own power and his own gains. I hate that kind of selfishness.

But I love a lot of his followers. I love my relatives who have come to every birthday party for my kids, sent graduation gifts, danced at family weddings, made me dinners just for fun. I love my neighbors who kayak with us, go out to dinner with us, share perennials, gripe about the lousy weather and sit through endless town meetings with us.

I despise the media moguls who control our thoughts by following the orders of their corporate overlords. Fox News is a wholly owned subsidiary of Trump and his Corporate organization. They’re ridiculous. They aren’t news. I would never look to them for news.

CNN is less obvious, but “Breaking News” every hour on the hour for the past 10 years? Seriously, dudes? One big story per week, with endless repetitive talking heads pretending outrage and tears? That’s your idea of news?

Come. On.

I hate the ugly words that are being hurled around by people who disagree on the latest core issue. I hate seeing people berated for their beliefs, their life styles, their religious choices, their sexual preferences. I hate it. I hate the swears, the offensive remarks, the name calling, the hatred, the plain old meanness.

I don’t love my country, because I don’t know what that means. Am I supposed to love the dirt? The trees? The highways? Am I supposed to love the flag, no matter where it waves or who is holding it or how it is used? I don’t know if I’m expected to love my government? The bureaucracy of it? The big money that owns it?

I do love my countrymen. I love them because they’re also trying to make sense of the struggles we face every day. They want jobs, they want some financial security, they was to know that if they work hard they will be able to provide a safe life for their families.

I love my countrymen because they are humans. I love my fellow humans. I don’t hate the ones who are different from me. I don’t hate or fear the ones who have different colored skin than mine. I don’t hate of fear the ones who are more or less religious than me or the ones who call the divine by a name I don’t recognize. I don’t fear or hate my fellow humans if they are richer or poorer than me, or if they speak a different language or if they live in a different part of this earth.

And I don’t hate or fear my fellow humans, my fellow Americans, my fellow community members because they disagree with my views on gun control or border safety or trade or taxes.

I hope that I am smart enough to find some truth in all the complete bullshit that is filling our world. I hope that I am brave enough to listen when people have different ideas than my own.

And I hope that I am kind enough, evolved enough, thoughtful enough to grant my fellow family members, neighbors, coworkers the right to their own opinions.

I will still work as hard as I can to move my country and my world in a direction that seems the best to me. I will still work as diligently as possible to bring a positive, loving, kind world into being.

But I will try my best to do that without screaming at my friends on the “other side.”

I don’t know if my plan will work. I just know that it’s the only way I can proceed and still feel proud of myself as I look in the mirror every day.

I wish more people shared my view.

It might make us all a lot safer and a whole lot better informed.

9a150b743027258627c044efd5296340

Trying to be my best self.

Leaving On A Jet Plane


Paul and I are about to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary in the most wonderful way imaginable. We are about to jet off to Europe for a three week vacation, the longest we have ever taken.

We’ll start in Germany, spending a week with very dear friends. There will be laughing, eating, drinking, music and a lot of catching up on each other’s lives after two years apart.

From there we head South into Italy, my home country, where we hope to connect with distant relatives and learn about my family’s pre-immigration past.

I am SO excited that I can’t even stand it!!!

But.

I’m wondering what I will say when we are asked about the current situation here in the US. I mean, I know that I’ll assure whoever it is I’m talking to that most of us did NOT vote for Trump and despise his policies.

But my bigger worry is how to explain the way Americans are behaving toward each other these days.

How do I explain that half of us think it’s absolutely fine to mock and berate the other half? What do I say about one side refusing to serve food or bake cakes for the other half?

Is there a reasonable way to explain the curses, the vulgarities, the insulting names that each side is using on the other?

Can “Well, they did it first!” be translated into German or Italian without sounding like the absolute lamest excuse given by any kindergartener ever?

What do I say?

I can imagine myself trying to explain. “Well, I know it sounds like we Americans absolutely hate each other, but……”

But, what?

Do we hate each other? Do we really want each other to be humiliated, to be denied hospitality, to be spat upon?

How far away are we from violence in the streets, as rival groups hurl both insults and stones at each other?

How did we get here?

What do I say?

“I don’t know what has happened to us,” I might begin. “I remember when we used to argue at dinner, but keep on passing the dessert plate.”  Maybe I’ll point to the obvious issues with corporate media, and how that has lead to opposing viewpoints replacing factual news.

“I remember when we used to turn on the evening news, knowing that we’d get the same information no matter which channel we picked, but watching our favorite news reporters.”

Sigh.

How do I explain the sheer ugliness and vitriol and rage that has engulfed us all over here in the “land of the free”?

I don’t know.

I share that rage, and in some cases that ugliness and vitriol. There have been a boatload of moments in the past two years when I’ve wanted to strangle the life out of someone in the news.

How do I explain that to people who have lived through the violence and horrors of fascism and World War? What do I say? How do I describe my fervent desire to oppose what I see as immoral, without losing my own moral center?

I don’t know.

I truly do not know.

But before our plane lands on distant shores, I promise that I will have learned to say, “I love my fellow citizens” in at least two languages.

Maybe we should all be memorizing that phrase in English.

europe_4 pays

 

Remembering “My” Kids


I went into my daughter’s classroom for a visit last week. She teaches a loop, so she has her students for two years. Now it’s June of her second year with these lovely sixth graders, and everyone is tired, emotional, and ready to move on. I brought Kate’s kids in to the classroom to say goodbye.

Naturally, just stepping into the school building where I taught for more than two decades had me nostalgic.

All the way home that afternoon, I thought about “my” kids from over the years. Here are a few of the stories that have been on my mind.

The Bombs Below

One year I had a boy in my class who had spent about half of his ten years of life in his native Pakistan. His family had moved back and forth from the U.S. to Pakistan a couple of times, and were intending to return again. My student went through the year with one foot here and one over there.

In the early fall of that fifth grade year, we all went on a three day trip to the mountains. The trip included environmental studies and team building. It was hard work for this old teacher, but it was fun! One of the best parts was a hike up to a small mountain peak near the camp. We would all scramble through the woods for an hour or so until we came out to the summit, where the students would gather and gaze down at the camp, far below. Part of our tradition was to call out a greeting from the summit to the camp below. The kids below would hear us and call back.

That particular year, there was some construction going on at the camp. From the summit, we could hear distant hammers and faint booms as piles of wood were unloaded from trucks.

I stood with my Pakistani student, asking him if he could hear the kids calling up from below. He frowned behind his large glasses, squinting at the lake in the distance. “Listen carefully,” I told him. “We’ll yell and the kids on the athletic field will yell back.”

The kids gathered around me, giggling and clearing their throats.  “How, How!” we yelled. We waited, and then it came, “How, How!” from below. I turned to my student with a smile. “Did you hear it?”

He shook his head.

“All I can hear is those bombs down there.”

That’s what it’s like to leave a war zone. This poor kid heard distant hammering and simply assumed that bombs were going off.

He didn’t even react.

What grade am I in?

Many years ago, before I became a classroom teacher, I was the speech/language specialist in our school. I worked with kids who had communication disorders due to learning disabilities, hearing impairment, intellectual impairments and other challenges.

One year I was asked to evaluate a student who had recently immigrated to the U.S. from Brazil. The boy was tall, gangly armed in the way of pre-adolescent boys. He had a huge grin and sparkling brown eyes. Everything made him laugh.

His English was poor, but growing rapidly. He had a quick wit and warm charm that made him instantly popular with his classmates and teachers. He had very few academic skills, which was why I was doing my assessment. We weren’t sure if this young man had an underlying learning disorder that had held back his ability to read in his native Portuguese. We needed to find the best way to help catch up.

Although this student was old enough to be enrolled in our fifth grade, he had been placed in the fourth grade to give him time to catch up.

When I began my language assessment with a casual conversation, I learned why he was struggling so much.

“What grade were you in when you were in Brazil?”

“What grade? I don’t know. How do I know what grade I am in?”

“Honey, how many years of school did you do?”

“Oh. I don’t know.” I remember that he shrugged and grinned, looking up from beneath the brim of his cap. “I would go when there was a teacher. Sometimes I would go but there would be no teacher, so we just played or went home.”

I found out later, through an interpreter at a meeting with his Mom, that this boy had never completed a single year of school. There was no set curriculum, no continuity of lessons from year to year. Most troubling of all, teachers would come and go all year, often missing weeks of teaching time without replacements.

“This is why we left our country,” the Mom explained. “We wanted him to go to school.”

That handsome, charismatic, bright little guy was at our school for only a year. After that, we lost track of him as his family struggled to find a place to settle safely.

I think about him often.

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In honor of every single child who needs safety, education, and love.

I Am Officially Ridiculous


Oh, brother.

What a wuss. What a jerk. What a stupid, weepy old woman.

I can’t stop the tears.

Some of them are from the horrors going on at our border, but others are more personal. It’s the personal tears for which I am apologizing now.

As some of you know, I have the best job on earth. I live a life that most humans can only dream about.

I stay at home, all day, every day, with my two grandchildren. These kids are also known as the cutest, sweetest, funniest, most easy going babies on earth.

Seriously. These are the people I play with all day.

The world’s cutest kids, right?

So, what’s the problem?

Oh, boo-hoo, poor me. In one short week, I will be heading off to Europe with my husband. We will celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. We’ll spend some time with our dear friends in Germany, then head into Italy. Our two sons and their partners will join us.

Heaven, right?

The Alps, the Mediterranean, the food, the wine, the music, the beaches, the desserts!!!!

Oh, sole mio! It will be (not kidding) the trip of a lifetime!!!! I am SO excited that I have already packed and repacked my suitcase three times! I’m ready! I am so. ready. to. go.

But.

(the sound of brakes screeching)

What do you mean, three weeks away from Ellie’s eyes? What do you even MEAN, three weeks without one single Johnny hug??? What if he takes his first steps? What if she forgets our morning ballet routine? What if when I get back they don’t even care?

Oh, this old Nonni is a nutcake. She knows it.

But.

I love my days with these goofy, happy, messy, exhausting little people. I can’t imagine surviving three long weeks without them.

Please tell me that I’m an idiot. Please remind me that the kids will be with their Mom and Dad, and this is how it’s supposed to be.

Tell me to shut up and get over it.

Remind me that I’ll be soaking up the sun and drinking great wine with the love of my life.

I’ll nod, and smile, and tell you that you’re right. Then I’ll no doubt sob a little and pull up pics of the kids on my phone.

Sigh.

I’m ridiculous.

What The Kids Are Learning


I used to be a teacher. I used to spend a lot of time ruminating about what my kids were learning. I used to evaluate my lessons in order to carefully measure the exact idea that was being taught, and how well each child had mastered that concept.

I know, after thirty or so years of teaching kids, and after raising three of my own, that kids learn a LOT from what they observe. They don’t always grasp the fine points of the various graphs and pictures in their text books, but they do learn from what they see and hear.

So I’m wondering.

I’m wondering what our 8-16 year olds are learning in the age of Donald Trump. What are they taking away from the ongoing drama that keeps unfolding on our TV’s, in our social media, on the front pages of our newspapers? What have they figured out about successful behavior from the actions and reactions of their parents and other adults?

I have a few guesses, based on my decades of assessing children’s learning. See what you think, and let me know if you agree.

1. Lying is a powerful tool

Even though I’m sure that every kid in the country has gotten into trouble at least once for lying, they must be learning that if you lie often enough, your lie will be accepted.

I’m sure that our kids are watching as their President makes claims that are OBVIOUSLY lies. He claimed that thousands of Muslims were out on the streets of New York cheering when the towers came down on 9/11. There is no proof, no evidence, no pictures, no reports, no corroborating reporters. But Trump repeated the lie so many times that you can find people on Twitter now who repeat it as fact.

Our kids are learning how to lie. Do it often. Repeat as needed. Act completely convinced of the righteousness of your lie. Repeat again. Never back down.

Bam. Your lie has won the day.

2. Bullies Win

Donald Trump appears to have won the most important and powerful job in the country by being what every elementary kid would recognize as a bully. Our children have learned that its a good idea to call people ugly names. “Crooked Hillary”, “Little Marco”, “Slippery James Comey”.

Every kid at recess must be thinking about the social stature he can earn by making fun of “Fat Georgie” or “Jimmy the Fag.”

They must be wondering why their teachers pressure them to accept their disabled peers. I mean, Trump was applauded for publicly mocking a physically disabled reporter. Why should they be kind to that weird autistic kid in their math class?

Teachers and parents can’t really compete with the image of the most powerful man in the country and his powerful bullying attacks.

3. Blame everyone else

What can I say?

Donald Trump is happy to blame his spokespeople for repeating his bullshit. He is delighted to blame nonexistent voter fraud for his loss of the popular vote. He blames the “fake media” for pointing out his many lies, distortions and screw-ups.

The lesson for our children surely must be that best way to avoid the consequences of bad behavior isn’t to behave well. It’s to do whatever the hell you want, and then point the finger at someone else.

Awesome.

4. Take NO responsibility for any error. Ever.

Trump and his team have absolutely mastered the skill of looking right into the camera and saying, “I forgot.”

“Did you or any of your staff ever meet with any Russians, anywhere, at any time?”

“No, no, again we say, no!!!!”

And then when it is proven that your campaign manager, your top advisor, your own damn SON, actually met with a whole boatload of Russians on a whole boatload of different dates, you just shrug your shoulders and say, “Gosh. We forgot.”

Never mind the fact that if you guys actually are so addled and mentally deficient that you DID you forget, then you aren’t in any shape to be running the country.

Never mind that you are clearly demonstrating dementia.

You have taught our kids how to respond if we ask them, “Did you eat that chocolate cake I left on the counter for my office party?” Our kids will just give the big eyes and say. “Nope.”

When we point out the frosting smeared across their faces, they will just shrug their tiny shoulders and say, “I forgot.”

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“I didn’t throw that toy in the toilet. It was that stupid kid. Or, if I did it, I just don’t remember.”

None of this is funny, although I’m trying my best to make you laugh.

None of this is normal.

We will be working hard for the next decade, at least, to undo the damage done by this lying, self absorbed, irresponsible blowhard and those who follow his lead.

This is awful.